Illinois Redistricting Hearings Fail to Engage the Public. Ask Yourself Why

Illinois State Capitol (Éovart Caçeir)

You might be surprised to hear that members of the Illinois General Assembly would like your help in drawing the new legislative maps. 

Last week, the Senate Redistricting Committee began a series of public hearings covering 15 regions of the state. Committee members say their goal is to allow citizens to speak their minds about what their legislative districts should look like and to submit their own proposed maps using a tool and a portal provided by the legislature.

That tool is not available yet. Neither is the portal. In fact there are no numbers to work with: Thanks to Covid-19 and political interference by the Trump administration, the U.S. Census numbers that normally would be available by now won’t be ready until September.

That didn’t stop lawmakers from proceeding with the hearings.

It isn’t going to stop them from drawing the maps, either. The Democrats who control both houses of the General Assembly are racing to complete the maps by June 30 so they don’t have to allow Republicans into the process. They keep referring to that date as a constitutional deadline.

But the Illinois constitution doesn’t say that if there’s no map by June 30, the world will end.

It says that if lawmakers can’t pass the maps by June 30, the job is handed over to a bipartisan commission. If the commission can’t agree — as happened in 1981, 1991 and 2001 — then the maps are drawn by the party that wins a draw-from-a-hat tiebreaker. 

Framers of the constitution thought that provision would encourage bipartisan compromise. They believed lawmakers would be ashamed to leave something so important to chance. 

When it comes to redistricting, though, lawmakers are pretty shameless. Their priority isn’t to draw maps that assure fair representation. It’s to draw maps that assure their re-election. 

The former requires a block-level understanding of true community boundaries, which is why these public hearings could be invaluable if taken seriously. The latter involves plotting the addresses of incumbents on the maps and drawing the districts around them, which is exactly what’s going to happen.

To finish up by June 30, they’ll have to use alternative data. What numbers will they use? They won’t say. That makes it hard for members of the public to submit their own maps for consideration, of course. Which tells you all you need to know about how badly lawmakers want your input.

There are plenty of other signs: Senators were on their third hearing by the time they posted a map of the 15 regions to go with the schedule. Maybe that’s why only a handful of people — mostly good government advocates, not everyday citizens — were on those calls. Or maybe it was because the hearings were held on short notice, at 3 p.m. on consecutive weekdays. 

The senators who chaired the meetings were largely unprepared to answer questions, insisting their goal was to listen even though almost nobody was there to speak. 

Sen. Suzy Glowiak Hilton, who chaired Thursday’s DuPage County hearing, said “invitations” had gone out six days earlier. (Did you get yours?) Sen. Steve Stadelman, who chaired Friday’s hearing of Northern Illinois — 15 counties, three witnesses —  said more than once that outreach had been extensive but “you can’t force people to testify.” Will residents of those regions get another hearing? Nobody could say.

This is not public engagement. It’s lip service.

Democrats are hellbent on making a deadline that serves nobody’s interests but their own. In their haste to shut out their opponents, they’re shutting out their constituents, too.

They need to slow down and do this right. That means a sincere attempt at outreach and a hearing schedule that promotes participation. It means delivering the tools and the data that were promised. It means answering questions and responding to the input they receive. 

They should spend the coming months holding meaningful public conversations, instead of barreling through these check-the-box hearings. And they should commit to another round of hearings to collect feedback and make adjustments after the maps are drafted.

That would demonstrate a commitment to preserving communities, and to fair representation. What they’ve demonstrated so far is precisely the opposite.

This column appeared in the State Journal-Register.